Eagles vs. Steelers: Sketching out a Game Plan for Philadelphia

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistOctober 4, 2012

September 30, 2012; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia Eagles running back LeSean McCoy (25) runs for a gain against the New York Giants during second quarter action at Lincoln Financial Field. Mandatory Credit: Jeffrey G. Pittenger-US PRESSWIRE

The Philadelphia Eagles keep running into well-rested opponents. They had the New York Giants on 10 days' rest last week and now face the Pittsburgh Steelers, in Pittsburgh, coming off their bye week. 

And it was a very beneficial week off for Pittsburgh, who got much healthier. Now, it looks as though James Harrison and Rashard Mendenhall are set to make their 2012 debuts, while Troy Polamalu appears to be ready to suit up for the first time since Week 1. 

But the Eagles can't let that change their approach Sunday at Heinz Field. If anything, the return of playmakers like Harrison and Polamalu should only bolster the philosophy the Eagles should have on offense. Let me explain in my suggested game plan...


Make LeSean McCoy the Centerpiece of the Offense

Those independent neurologists who have to clear players with concussions before they can return to action should take a look at Andy Reid's pupils, because the man suddenly started running the ball consistently in the second half last week against the Giants. It only took 13 years.

Oh, and it paid off. 

That'll again be the key on offense in Week 5. The Steelers are shorthanded up front with James Harrison less than 100 percent, and that entire defensive line has struggled against the run early this season. 

Willis McGahee and Darren McFadden have already fared pretty well against this defense, and McCoy has the ability to raise things to a whole new level. Only five teams have allowed more yards per carry in the open field than the Steelers have this season, according to Football Outsiders, and it just so happens that McCoy broke more tackles than any back in the game last season.

The Steelers' pass rush isn't as lethal as it once was, but the expected return of Harrison and Polamalu will help, and Philly's offensive line is still a giant question mark. This defense might not be particularly good at getting takeaways, but Michael Vick has been too mistake-prone to tempt fate against a veteran unit that knows him well.

Close your eyes and envision how the Eagles will lose this game. For me, that picture contains Polamalu strip-sacking Vick in the fourth quarter. The Eagles should be playing to win rather than not to lose, but utilizing McCoy to his full potential gives them their best opportunity to execute both approaches.


Let Them Target Brandon Boykin

The Steelers have made no secret about the fact they'll be targeting the rookie nickel corner on Sunday, which should be fine with the Eagles, who likely already expected as much. 

This is the biggest matchup problem the Eagles will have in this game. Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominque Rodgers-Cromartie are likely to face Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown while Boykin spends a lot of time with Emmanuel Sanders in the slot. 

The key might be to rope-a-dope the Steelers into becoming comfortable with that idea. Yes, Boykin's been beaten 11 times for 144 yards this year, and he was owned by Victor Cruz and Larry Fitzgerald the last two weeks, but he was actually playing quite well prior to that and I don't think Sanders, Brown or even Wallace are in the same category as Cruz and Fitzgerald (especially considering how skilled Cruz is in the slot).

The point is that if the Steelers watched tape of the Baltimore game, they would have seen Boykin shut down Anquan Boldin and Jacoby Jones. 

Will the kid need safety help as often as possible? Yes. But because Pittsburgh's offensive line is a mess and the Steelers will likely have a one-dimensional attack again, Philly can spent a lot of time in nickel and dime packages on defenses. I'd love to see bracket coverage on the outside with Brandon Hughes stepping in after a solid performance against the Giants. 

That's something Ben Roethlisberger might not be expecting, which could be a good thing. 

Rodgers-Cromartie's playing so well right now and the run defense might be good enough to hold up against an injured Rashard Mendenhall with only Mychal Kendricks and DeMeco Ryans at linebacker. If that's the case, the Eagles can drop five into coverage to present Roethlisberger with only a solo single matchup (probably Brown vs. Rodgers-Cromartie), often forcing Pittsburgh to settle for short stuff with Heath Miller. 

The Steelers are going to score points, but the key will be slowing them down and preventing big plays. Philadelphia has to have faith that Boykin and a safety can limit the damage in the slot and can't panic by ditching broad coverage and blitzing the hell out of that weak O-line. Forget safety blitz for one week, because Roethlisberger is mobile enough to escape those anyway and it's not worth the sacrifice on the back end.

The reality is that the wide-nine front should be capable of pressuring Big Ben regardless of help, and teasing Roethlisberger with a lot of Boykin-Sanders matchups could cause the quarterback to get greedy, resulting in a big play or two for the defense.

A lot of nickel and dime and some surprise bracket coverage on the outside will force the Steelers to beat you with Miller and Mendenhall, which is the safer bet.